Eating Out

The fine art of beetroot

Lisa Hilton swoons over postmodern but pricy three-star brilliance in Paris

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

‘‘Hurts so good” was a 1982 John Mellencamp hit, accompanied by a fantastically camp video featuring the singer in a masking-tape codpiece with a gang of bewildered-looking Hell’s Angels two-stepping round their handbags as backing dancers. “Hurts so good” is also an acclamatory category on the French gastronomic website “Le Fooding”. I think we can all work out what Mr Mellencamp meant by the lyric, but as applied to restaurants? It can’t be calories, because the French don’t believe in them. Maybe the guide is referring to Michelin-shame. In January the doughty tyre catalogue announced its eighty-seventh annual round of stars, accompanied by the customary declarations that the star system is désuet, elitist, exploitative and useless.

Chefs are handing back their stars in droves, suing the guide, collapsing into their stock pots under the pressure of cooking to impress an institution which values flower arrangements and fawning service over honest-to-goodness cooking.

Chefs are handing back their stars in droves, suing the guide

The sneers seemed a bit hard on the poor Michelin inspectors, who “ate in double shifts and even gave up their summer holidays” to cram in reviews between lockdowns, but liking Michelin-level food is definitely not hip. Hence the sweet pain — stjarnaskam (“star shame” if we want to get Greta on it) — of loving something you know is a little bit wrong.

As an unapologetic Michelin whore, I feel that shame. Slightly. What’s an art form you really love? Do you dream of seeing Sergei Polunin as Albrecht in Giselle? Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven’s Seventh? The Caravaggios at the Capodimonte?

So if you were invited to do that, but with someone who frankly you wouldn’t usually care to share an M&S egg and cress on a chilly park bench with, would you go? Maybe you’re all better people than me but frankly, show me a Ris de veau croustillant piqué au citron confit, jeune blette cuite en tulipe et girolles avec son jus de viande à la réglisse and I’m anybody’s.

The first time I went to Arpège in Paris my date was a boring man who wrote detective stories. He had worked in Hollywood and had many anecdotes about Tom and Bob and someone else called Tom and he told them.

He told them through a carpaccio of truffle with baby turnip and he told them over the finely sliced duckling breast in a reduction of rooibos tea and perhaps he was still telling them over the Jerusalem artichoke macaron with Madagascar vanilla reduction, but by then I was too ecstatic to notice.

Arpège encapsulates stjarnaskam. Rapture or revulsion. Alain Passard, then a master rotisseur (which makes him one of the very few chefs entitled to wear a black hat), won his stars back in 1996. Twenty-odd years ago, he experienced an epiphany, rejecting both conventional menu construction and its animal-protein ingredients in favour of a celebration of vegetables.

For a while, Arpège was entirely vegetarian, though it subsequently reintroduced minor notes of meat and fish. The restaurant is supplied by its own two vegetable gardens, and produce travels 227km to Paris every morning by TGV.

If you want unaffected plating go to a food truck

It’s difficult to review the dishes precisely because Passard, who still cooks at Arpège every day, famously never records recipes or methods. He looks in the baskets every morning and waits for inspiration to strike. Eating there is therefore a very pricey gamble — are you paying upwards of 400 euros for a unique interpretation of world-class ingredients which you and only you will ever eat, or are you just another mug dining on the emperor’s old underpants?

A return to Arpège last summer made an irrefutable case for the former. Passard still has those three stars and what he can’t do with asparagus isn’t worth doing. Certain techniques, such as vegetable “sushi” persist and there might be an argument for a repetition of form, but the balade légumière remains a walk in Wonderland.

Combinations are high-low postmodern, the humble with the haute, so a leek might appear dressed in argan or Alentejo oil, spinach with sesame nougat.

One of the objections to the Michelin straitjacket is the expectation that food will be tweaked and tweezered to the visual perfection of a Ravenna mosaic, but if you want unaffected plating go to a food truck. Passard’s superlative execution is art if art is something joyful, lucid and playful that manages to illuminate the world in a different way. With a beetroot. With reference to Arpège, the pain might well refer to the price.

My latest companion there certainly did so, nearly as often as the detective novelist did to Kate and Leo. Even for a three-star, Arpège is shamingly expensive, about the same as a pair of tickets for the opera at Bayreuth. Still, another “Fooding” category is “antidepressant” and Arpège is definitely that. Even if a girl’s gotta suffer for her stars — baby, it just hurts so good.

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